GREEN BAY - Don’t let his quiet, modest demeanor fool you. In his dark-blue LeBron James jersey, it’s easy to think of Cleveland native Jayrone Elliott as just another guy. A special-teams ace earning his living shoulder to shoulder with NFL stars.
He has a normalcy that’s hard to find in locker rooms these days. The only thing a professional football player has to fear is admitting fear itself. Not Elliott. There are no canned, skittish answers from this former undrafted linebacker.
“I’m still paranoid when I step out there,” Elliott said.
Slowly, that paranoia is melting away. Confidence is growing in his third offseason with the Packers. In the dead of June, veterans like Clay Matthews and Julius Peppers aren’t expected to take a full plate of reps.
That leaves Elliott to roam free on the Packers' first-team defense.
It’s a place Elliott believes he belongs. Ask him what kind of player he thinks he can become, and that modest demeanor disappears. Elliott is bold. Fearless. Borderline cocky.
“I feel like I can be one of the top guys in this league,” Elliott said, “given the chance and taking advantage of it. Because I sit back and see Von Miller taking over the Super Bowl, or I see Clay Matthews taking over games here. Those guys, they’re spectacular guys. I’m not trying to say I’m better than them, but at the same time I feel like I can do the same things those guys are doing.
“It’s on me to take care of my opportunities. Those guys do the same thing. They’re both spectacular players, and I’m looking up to them. I’m learning from them constantly.”
Elliott keeps highlights of Miller, the Super Bowl 50 MVP, on his iPad. He plays them on a loop. “Day and night,” he said. Same with Matthews, his teammate just a few lockers down.
Always, Elliott said, he is asking Matthews how to take his game to the next level.
“Just trying to be great,” Elliott said. “I know I can do it. It’s on me to achieve it.”
Elliott already has achieved more than most people expected when he left Toledo in 2014. His value on special teams means a job on the 53-man roster once again will be secured in training camp. When special teams coordinator Ron Zook speaks to his players in meetings, Elliott said his coach will point to him as an example of how to take the less-beaten path to an NFL roster.
Stick in Elliott’s hip pocket, Zook tells young players. Watch what he does.
Now, the question is how much can Elliott do? He has played 231 snaps in two seasons, limited playing time that doesn’t exactly scream for the spotlight. It’s easy to doubt Elliott’s top-guy-in-this-league ambition. Maybe, though, his vision isn’t so crazy.
With a small sample size on an NFL field, all Elliott has done is make plays. Consider his pass-rush efficiency. Elliott had three sacks in 88 pass-rush snaps last season, recording one sack every 29 rushes, according to Pro Football Focus. Matthews recorded one sack every 49 rushes. Julius Peppers had one sack every 41 rushes.
Mike Neal, the departed outside linebacker, had one sack every 108.5 rushes.
Elliott did more than rush the quarterback. He made the biggest play in arguably the Packers' biggest regular-season win last season, stepping between Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson and running back Marshawn Lynch for a game-clinching interception in Week 2. It was a seminal moment for a player who scraped his way to the NFL, proof he belonged in professional football.
When October began, Elliott was on his way to a breakout second season with two sacks and the interception in his first three games. He was the Jeff Janis of the Packers' defense, a talented player just waiting to bust out, if only given more snaps.
Like Janis, more snaps never came Elliott’s way.
“It was frustrating for me personally,” Elliott said. “I felt like I could’ve made plays in different opportunities.”
Elliott is perhaps the biggest wild card on the Packers' defense. His talent is undeniable. So is the logjam between him and the field.
The Packers re-signed 2012 first-round pick Nick Perry this spring, and he figures to get snaps in run-defense packages. They also moved 2013 first-round pick Datone Jones from defensive end to outside linebacker, where he potentially can thrive as an elephant rusher in the nickel. Joining Matthews and Peppers, the Packers have four former first-round picks on their outside linebacker depth chart.
That’s a lot of blue-chip talent ahead of a player who wasn’t drafted.
“He’s gonna have to bring in some boxing gloves,” outside linebackers coach Winston Moss said, “and he’s gonna have to fight for it. Because he has some really good guys to get through first. He’s got Nick, he’s got Clay, he’s got Pep, he’s got Datone. There’s some bodies in front of him. He’s gonna have to fight through it.
“As long as he’s staying on the grind and working hard every day and he does his job, it’s our job (as coaches) to sort all that stuff out.”
Elliott admits he only has himself to blame for the lack of snaps. After the interception against Seattle, he said, his eyes got big. He started “chasing plays” all over the field, constantly out of position.
It was a natural reaction for a player wanting to build on early-season success, but also hard to figure. Elliott’s interception against Wilson was a testament to assignment-sound football. Instead of biting on the screen pass, Elliott stayed in his spot. The football found him, not the other way around.
“Once I made the one interception on the screen,” Elliott said, “I’m searching for the screen every game now. Instead of just being prepared and letting it come to me like the screen did, I just have to go out there and be ready to play.”
He didn’t have the same discipline after Seattle. Elliott missed assignments, allowed big plays. In Denver, Elliott said, he “chased the bootleg” against Peyton Manning. Coming off a bye week, he expected a trick play. He thought Manning would keep the football. So he sprinted up field, out of position, and lost containment.
This is why he’s still “paranoid,” even in practice. In his third season, he wants to show he’s reliable. He wants coaches and teammates to know he’s not just hunting for the big play, ignoring the basics.
“Not holding up my end of the stick,” Elliott said. “Letting my teammates down. I don’t want to be that guy out there, basically. I want to be accountable at all times stepping on the field, and show these guys I can be a guy, and let the older guys and younger guys know they can trust me.”
He can’t be accountable if he’s injured. That’s another lesson Elliott pulled from last season.
A strained quadriceps muscle forced Elliott to miss the final four games, including playoffs. This problem wasn’t entirely Elliott’s fault. Defensive end Mike Daniels stepped on his quad in practice, Elliott said.
At 310 pounds, Daniels’ cleat can do a lot of damage.
The injury wasn’t supposed to linger as long as it did. After the season, Elliott explained, trainers told him his off-field habits were partially to blame. So he revamped his diet this off-season. He started carrying a water jug everywhere he went.
The hardest part, Elliott learned, was kicking an unhealthy addiction to Sour Patch Kids.
“I’m trying to stay away from those Sour Patch Kids,” he said. “I’m not gonna lie, I’m not away from them completely. It’s something new, just trying to eat more healthier foods and healthier snacks and more fruit and staying hydrated, instead of having muscle pulls.
“The trainers said if I had hydrated better and got more sleep at night, (my quad) would’ve recovered faster. So that was on me. I’ve got to do that, and also stay away from Mike Daniels.”